What’s the Harm? Part 3- The “Reproducibility Crisis”
Updated: Aug 16, 2020
In early 2011, Daryl Bem, one of the world’s best-known social psychologists, published a paper in one of psychology’s most discerning, peer-reviewed publications, the journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (Feeling the future: Experimental evidence for anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect.) This paper contained the results of Bem’s 10-years study on ESP, and started a major battle in the on-going war of science verses taboo, and exposed deep problems with the institutions of science and how it’s practiced, especially in America.
The fact that this paper was published at all, let alone in such a prestigious journal, is extremely remarkable because it flaunts the taboo against ESP, and in doing so it had to wend its way through rigorous peer review, where any reviewer can challenge anything about the paper, on any grounds they like, usually resulting in a rejection. This time, surprisingly, the paper passed peer review and the editor, who had final say, went ahead and published the paper.
The resulting crisis was documented in an article by Daniel Engber in a June 7, 2017 edition of Slate: Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real: Which means science is broken. The crux of the problem was that the paper showed that ESP is real, and nobody could find anything wrong with the experiments. Not the protocol, not the controls, not the replications, nada. As Engber says “…for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane.” For, if you rejected the results, that would be admitting “that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field—and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind—could be total bunk.” But, they couldn’t accept the results either, because the taboo against ESP is just too strong. So strong that “Reading it made me physically unwell,” recalls E.J. Wagenmakers, a research methodologist from the University of Amsterdam.
In a panic, three replication studies were undertaken and all failed to replicate Bem’s results. The world of psychology and science breathed a collective sigh of relief, the taboo was safe!
The same thing has happened before, when psi-positive studies managed to get published, but a problem was brewing, for these negative results were coming at a cost. In 2010, Chris Carter published an article with the unwieldy title “Heads I Lose, Tails You Win”, Or, How Richard Wiseman Nullifies Positive Results, and What to Do about It: A Response to Wiseman’s (2010) Critique of Parapsychology, in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. In this article he examines the decidedly unscientific methods used by psychologists Richard Wiseman, a well-known critic of parapsychology to “debunk” psychic research. These methods include making sweeping claims without evidence, and making arbitrary changes to the methods of analyzing data, and even the laws of statistics and probability. This last case was so egregious that other scientists stepped in to challenge his methods. As Carter put it, in reference to Wiseman’s test of a psychic named Natasha:
…[Wiseman] announced that Natasha had “failed the test”. Brian Josephson, a Nobel Laureate in physics, investigated Wiseman's claims about this test and found them to be seriously misleading.
Keith Rennolls, Professor of Applied Statistics, University of Greenwich wrote a letter that appears in the 2004 December 17th issue of the Times Higher Education Supplement. In part it reads:
I have reviewed Professor Josephson’s arguments, published on his web page, and find them to be scientifically and statistically correct. In contrast, the statement of Professor Wiseman, of CSICOP, ‘I don’t see how you could argue there’s anything wrong with having to get five out of seven when she agrees with the target in advance’, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how experimental data should be interpreted statistically."
"The experiment is woefully inadequate in many ways. ... The experiment, as designed, had high chances of failing to detect important effects.
Scientists are debunking the debunkers! More and more scientists were getting uncomfortable with the extreme methods being used to keep psi off the table, but the taboo kept anyone from acknowledging these problems. The result was an, entirely predictable, “reproducibility crisis,” in which well know and foundational results have failed to replicate as much as half the time. It turns out that the very techniques that help keep the “wrong” results from being published also have also corrupted “good” science as well. Wiseman’s techniques were, at best, highly questionable, but never retracted, which influences all researchers to do the same. Or worse, to believe these techniques are “good science,” to use them themselves, and to fail to call out others who also use them.
What science is, and what gives it the power it has to expand knowledge and create amazing new technologies, is two things: The scientific method, and the body of accurate, many-times verified, knowledge that following generations build upon. As Sir Isaac Newton put it: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of giants.” Here we have seen these giants corrupted and crippled, for political reasons, by excluding accurate information about things religion doesn’t want anyone to know about, and by including false data, as a byproduct of the hacks required to keep out the taboo data. What is the cost, in time, money, and human suffering, caused by researchers falling down rabbit holes based on false results?
There are over 150 years of accumulated research data on psychic phenomena that are excluded from the database of science. Data that could tell us a lot about the mind, the brain, and consciousness, but it has to be ignored. Not only that, but any data that looks like, or even suggests anything like it, no matter where it comes from, must be ignored as well. For instance, “the hard problem of consciousness” is no closer to being solved now than in Plato’s time, because consciousness looks way too much like “soul” and “spirit” for the church to be comfortable with science learning anything about it. And there’s the Placebo Effect, about which Harvard Medical says “Your mind can be a powerful healing tool when given the chance,” which is too close to “faith healing” to be allowed any credibility. Yes, the placebo effect has to be taken into account when doing any kind medical research on people, but outside of that, it’s dismissed as “just the placebo effect,” as in, meaningless and utterly unimportant.
And even physics, that bastion of rationality, should be immune to the influences of the church’s taboos, right? Not so, I’m afraid. Theoretical physics has been stuck at a crossroads for 120 years, ever since the double slit experiment led to the development of quantum mechanics, which says that it takes observation to turn probability into reality. Essentially saying that matter only exists when someone is looking at it, which means that some kind of awareness had to exist before the universe, in order to bring the universe into existence. This sounds way too much like god for a materialist science to deal with, and the last thing the church wants is for science to prove god exists. And so physics sits, unable to discard QM because it’s too useful, but unable to move forward and reconcile QM with the rest of physics.
So, here we sit. With evidence that materialism isn’t enough coming from all sides: From theoretical physics, and rigorous laboratory experiments, to government spooks, wall street, and, of course, every religion in the world, and yet, it just ain’t so. Or, as one scientist said, when reviewing experimental results from the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (or PEAR) lab, “I wouldn’t believe it, even if it was true.” We see the gatekeepers of knowledge, the reviewers, publishers, and scientists, publicly allowing demonstrably false results to stand, while hiding proven correct results, corrupting the very institutions that science depends on for its credibility, and its very survival, in favor of what, dogma?
I’m not saying that debunkers work with the church, but that they have the same goals. They both want to stamp out “superstition” and “magic,” and the both have materialist goals, even if “materialism” looks a bit different, depending on where you stand. The debunker’s materialist views are pretty much what you’d expect, that we are nothing but biological robots with no inherent value, and the church, essentially, agrees with that, then adds an “immortal soul” to the mix, that must be “saved,” and only through the church. At this point, 2,000 years of Christian dominance have engraved in our collective psyche the idea that bodies don’t matter, leading to a plethora of incredibly inventive ways to torture and murder human beings, gleefully applied in order to “save one’s soul.” And also providing moral cover for slavery, genocide and every form of sadism and abuse, “in the name of the Lord.” Here we also see the origins of the idea that people being just “units of production,” and “consumers,” to be used, and discarded, as needed.
Perhaps now you can see why any form of spirituality, not controlled by the church, is an existential threat, not only to the church, but also to some of the foundational assumptions of western society. And why science, which should just “follow the data,” instead fights tooth and nail to protect the interests of religion, an institution that it should, on principle, fundamentally oppose. Fortunately, the taboo is breaking down due to the one thing dogma has never been able to resist, money. There is money to be made and defense contracts to win, and research institutions are increasing finding it difficult to say “no” to all that gorgeous moola. Right now, most of the contracts are done under strict confidentially, both for the donor and the institution, but how much longer can that last? Somebody’s going to be named the next Einstein, rewrite the textbooks, and win the Nobel prize for “finally” providing proof of the existence of psychic phenomena. It’s going to happen in my lifetime, the only question is who is it going to be the next Galileo, and who are going to be the forgotten cardinals who refused to look through his telescope?
As always, tell me what you think! Respectful comments are welcome!